The press has become incapable of seeing the strengths in Theresa May’s position. Everything has to be fitted into a narrative of pitiful primeministerial weakness. That story obliterates her considerable virtues.
Before the General Election, the opposite problem existed. May was regarded as strong to the point of invincibility, so her frailties became invisible.
Rosa Prince ended the hardback edition of her biography, Theresa May: The Enigmatic Prime Minister, published in February this year, with the words:
“Yet through it all, with no real opposition to worry about, one thing is clear: the vicar’s daughter remains in control.”
Eight months later, the paperback version of this invaluable work appears with an additional chapter, entitled “Paradise Lost”, in which after two pages we find this sentence, used with reference to the Prime Minister’s announcement in April of a snap general election:
“And then the vicar’s daughter drove the purring Bentley of her leadership off a cliff edge.”
It sounds like the end of Thelma and Louise, in which the two women drive their Ford Thunderbird convertible off the edge of the Grand Canyon, where they may be presumed to have perished.
But May has not perished. She is still Prime Minister, and has gained two extra years before the next election has to be held – a period of time which could become invaluable, for it enables the Government to play a longer electoral game than would otherwise be possible.
It is unquestionably true that May is much weaker than she intended to be when she called the 2017 election. But this is by no means the whole truth.
For her weakness confers on her a number of paradoxical strengths. In the first place, voters may prefer a weak Prime Minister to a strong one.
If she was now an elected dictator, there would already be complaints that she had amassed far too much power. Expectations of what she could achieve would be unrealistically high, she would be blamed for every tiny thing that went wrong, and her opponents might despair of parliamentary politics and decide to take to the streets.
We have a tradition, in all walks of life, of initiation through hardship. The Prime Minister is now being put through a series of humiliations. It is more than possible she will be broken by this ordeal, but it is also more than possible that having endured it without complaint, she will emerge from it with enhanced respect.
Her weakness is good for Parliament. It means the opinions of distinguished backbenchers have to be taken seriously.
While writing this article, I happened to be rung by an ardent Remainer. He said he saw no way of avoiding Brexit, but would far rather have it carried out by a sober, practical, understated woman, who is not very good at showing emotion, than by some firebrand who gets intoxicated by the sound of his or her own rhetoric.
As for the Leavers, they know the Prime Minister has committed herself to seeing Brexit through, and they do not know that whoever replaced her could be relied on to stick to that task.
It is more than conceivable that weak leadership, of the kind provided by May, is the best way to keep the Conservative Party together through the process of leaving the European Union.
We are assured, by a number of eminent authorities, that Brexit is an almost impossibly difficult task, the hardest negotiation since the Second World War.
I don’t doubt that it is difficult. Nor do I imagine the business cycle has been abolished. Gordon Brown’s successors have no more ended boom and bust than he did.
But Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron could well decide that in May, they are dealing with as reasonable, pragmatic, conscientious and trustworthy a British Prime Minister as they could hope to find.
They may reckon they would rather deal with the known quantity of May, than the chaos which might ensue if they helped to destabilise her.
Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn struts and frets his hour upon the stage. He has done far better than his critics expected. But the sight of him in his newfound prosperity poses the question of whether he and his colleagues would actually be any better than May and her colleagues at seeing through Brexit.
Corbyn’s unexpected popularity offers a reason to avoid, if at all possible, precipitating an early general election. He too suggests it might be wiser to “always keep ahold of nurse, for fear of finding something worse”.
The best is the enemy of the good. The present Prime Minister is not ideal. But when – except in rare flashes – has a British Prime Minister ever been ideal?